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How to Deal With a Hostile Work Environment

Aug 9, 2023
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Situations that are “merely difficult or annoying” such as “personality conflicts, petty slights, annoyances, rudeness and isolated incidents do not constitute a hostile work environment,” says Deb Muller, CEO for HR Acuity, an employee relations management platform.

If you’re the target of offensive or intimidating jokes, insults, ridicule or name-calling in the office, you may be the victim of a hostile work environment. If someone you work with is using sexual language, has sexually suggestive pictures or objects at work, or has engaged in threats, touching or physical assaults, these also may create an illegal hostile work environment.

As virtual and hybrid work has increased, it’s important to be aware that a hostile work environment can occur through remote employment settings as well. Don’t assume that threatening behaviors or communication that happen online are harmless. Virtual harassment, intimidation and discrimination can constitute a hostile work environment.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

The key to determining what constitutes a hostile work environment often comes down to how often it happens and how much it interferes with your work. Situations that are “merely difficult or annoying” such as “personality conflicts, petty slights, annoyances, rudeness and isolated incidents do not constitute a hostile work environment,” says Deb Muller, CEO for HR Acuity, an employee relations management platform.

To qualify as creating a hostile work environment, the behavior in question must be discriminatory, pervasive, severe and persistent. It must also be disruptive to your work performance. Another legal requirement is that the behavior must be something that your employer was aware of but ignored or did not deal with effectively enough to quash it.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes harassment as falling under this category, noting that harassment becomes unlawful when “the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.”

What’s a Hostile Work Environment in Remote Work?

Remote workers can find themselves dealing with a hostile work environment just like office-based employees can. In a virtual setting, a hostile work environment can emerge from online harassment via different types of online platforms, including email, videoconferencing, social media, and chat or messaging apps.

Remote work can also present opportunities for workplace discrimination based on factors including age, race, gender, sexual orientation and disability. This can happen, for example, when a remote employee who is older is passed up for a promotion or when someone is harassed with derogatory comments based on their sexual orientation.

Another way that remote workers may experience a hostile work environment is through microaggressions, which are subtle forms of bias that may stem from unconscious actions that lead to discrimination or exclusion of a person or group. Office workers can also experience microaggressions, but remote workers should be on the lookout for being treated differently simply because they don’t work onsite in the company office.

If you’ve identified these qualities in your workplace, here are some strategies to deal with a hostile work environment.

Quietly Cope

Figuring out how to deal with unpleasant situations created by mean co-workers, workplace bullies and others who may make you feel uncomfortable at work isn’t easy. At first, you may feel unsure about whether a situation fits the legal definition of a hostile work environment or if it’s simply a matter of figuring out how to deal with rude colleagues. It’s common to try to cope with the circumstances rather than take any concrete action.

If you take an approach of quietly coping, use this time to keep a daily log or other record of what you are experiencing. Capture dates and as much detail as possible to document what’s happening. Save relevant emails and take photos of evidence that might suggest harassment or a hostile work environment, such as sexually suggestive pictures or objects. If you work remotely, be sure to keep track of evidence that’s sent to you electronically, or record phone calls or video calls if you feel you’re being harassed.

Address the Situation Directly

If a co-worker is behind the behavior that you feel is creating a hostile work environment, the next step might be to confront the person directly. If you trust your boss and feel you can share the situation with him or her for support, you might be able to enlist a powerful advocate to stop the co-worker’s offensive behavior.

If you don’t feel comfortable involving your boss, you might try telling the colleague how their words or actions are affecting you. It’s possible that they were simply unaware that their comments or behaviors were offending others. But there’s a risk in taking this approach: The situation may escalate if the co-worker isn’t reasonable.

In a remote or hybrid work situation, it may be more difficult to address the situation directly, since you may work in a different location than the person perpetrating the harassment. If this happens, talk to your boss or human resources about alternatives for quickly addressing the problem.

Leave the Company

If you don’t feel you have the support of your supervisor or employer, you may feel compelled to leave the company. Getting to the bottom of a harassment situation or proving a hostile work environment often requires seeking help from your company’s human resources department or even a lawyer, so some people choose to opt out of taking these routes if they have other options for employment.

If you are beginning to experience health problems, have problems concentrating or sleeping, or are feeling anxious all the time about the situation at work, it’s understandable why you might consider exploring other opportunities – or even quitting your job – in relation to a hostile work environment.

Seek Legal or Administrative Recourse

Before pulling the plug on your job or company, it can sometimes help to enlist assistance from your HR department or seek legal advice outside the company. Your HR department may decide to conduct an investigation into your complaint to determine whether the situation qualifies as a hostile work environment. If it does, HR may take the lead in dealing with the employees who are creating a hostile work environment, whether in a remote-work setting or in the office.

If your company doesn’t take action on your report of a potentially hostile work environment, and you still feel that you have a valid complaint, you may want to call an attorney. Be ready to provide your lawyer with key details to help them determine the legality of your claim, such as:

  • Who engaged in the offensive behavior, how many times has it occurred and did more than one person participate in it?
  • Has this behavior affected your ability to get your job done? How?
  • Do you have any evidence – such as notes, photos, recordings or other documentation – that helps show the offensive behaviors?
  • Have you previously reported these incidents to your company? Did they take any action to stop the behaviors?

If you take the route of seeking administrative or legal recourse, the situation could take time to resolve and will likely be stressful. But if your claim is successful, this may be the most effective way to deal with a hostile work environment.